November 18, 2014
Rock musician turned composer Charlotte Hatherley picks her top 10 sci-fi soundtracks from the golden age of sci-fi cinema.
When did you first get into the science fiction genre?
CH: My dad was a big Philip K Dick fan and he has a huge collection of everything he ever wrote. He was also Brian Aldiss’s agent, the grandaddy of sci-fi, so growing up I soaked up his work and love for the genre. My favourite era is ’70s – ’80s sci fi, because films like Solaris, THX 1138 and A Clockwork Orange start using electronic music and sound design in truly groundbreaking ways which leads to the beauty of Vangelis’s synthesized Bladerunner score and the industrial poundings of Brad Fiedel’s Terminator.
Aside from the music, what is it about those films that make them great?
CH: Ultimately the best sci-fi films are about human relationships. Tarkovsky wanted to bring emotional depth to sci-fi and Solaris holds up a mirror to human nature.
As technology becomes increasingly intertwined with our lives sci-fi becomes less fantasy and more of a potentially frightening reality. It’s interesting that most sci-fi futures are dystopian. We are quite fearful of the future and I think great sci-fi film and literature can help us navigate through.
Have any sci-fi films and scores from this year caught your attention?
CH: Under The Skin was fantastic, the score by Mica Levi is my favourite of the year. I LOVED Guardians Of The Galaxy. Edge Of Tomorrow and Lucy were great fun. Scarlett Johansson is fast becoming my favourite woman. I’m dying to see Interstellar – it’s top of the list.
You’ve made your own leap into the world of sci-fi with your score for the short The Last Man. Tell us a bit about the film and score.
CH: The film is about a soldier who wakes up to find the world in a post-apocalyptic state. The score is a combination of discordant strings, pianos and organs and Carpenter-esque synths.
They sound well-matched. Which instruments were used to create that?
CH: I have a wonderfully fucked up and out of tune Farfisa organ that was used a lot. I got a lot out of my beautiful old Juno 60. I’ve yet to find a synth that sounds quite so epic. Most other synth and string sounds came from the Arturia Oberheim plug in, mostly I massively slowed them down so they sound stretched and whacked out. I record everything into Ableton.
And what was the process of scoring a film like?
CH: I started sending ideas to director Gavin Rothery very early on, before he started shooting. Gav had a strong idea of what he wanted and we sent refs back and forth. I wrote a hell of a lot music in that time. From rough cut to final cut it probably took about a month. I wrote and recorded everything at my home studio and then took it all to a bigger studio to mix.
Presumably you’ve seen the film more than once… any idea how many times?
CH: Oh you know… several!!!
I bet! What have you taken from the experience?
CH: Well this was my first film scoring experience so i’ve learnt a tremendous amount, in every area of composing. The most fascinating part was sitting in on the final mix with Paul Carter the sound designer. The film has no dialogue and until the final week I was used to the music being the only accompaniment. Watching how Paul Carter’s fantastic soundscapes brought the film to life and hearing the music and sound design working together was an important lesson.
And what’s next? More soundtrack adventures?
CH: Yes of course I would love to write more scores. Gavin has written a script for a feature film which is very exciting and in the short term i’m touring and writing songs for my solo project, Sylver Tongue.
Various (incl. Wendy Carlos)
A Clockwork Orange
(Warner Bros., 1971)
The most terrifying leading man carries out a crime wave of brutality in dystopian London played out against synthesized Beethoven symphonies. It’s a powerfully disorienting combination. Carlos had already made a record called Switched On Bach entirely using the Moog synthesizer which was a massive seller at the time. It’s a modern and hugely influential soundtrack that has the first use of vocoders on recorded vocals. Carlos later went on to bring her pioneering electronic sounds to the ’82 Tron soundtrack, also a sonic treat. There’s also a release of her largely unused soundtrack for Kubrick’s The Shining that’s worth checking out.
THX 1138 (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
(Warner Bros, 1970; reissued by Film Score Monthly, 2003)
George Lucas’s brilliant directorial debut. THX has the most incredible sound design by Walter Murch who had previously worked on The Conversation, another film with stunningly original use of sound montage. Alongside Murch’s sonic landscapes there’s a mix of strings, choirs, strange weird noises and a gorgeous flute and harp love theme. It’s a sonic feast and way ahead of it’s time. Before Star Wars heralded a new blockbuster age, this was regarded as a box office flop but has since gained a huge cult following.
Solaris (Original Soundtrack)
My favourite sci-fi film. Weird and beautiful, Tarkovsky puts grief and human emotion into space and it’s devastating. Artemiev wrote the music to several Tarkovsky films, including the brilliant Stalker. Solaris is a stunning collection of truly original electronic soundscapes, 10 years before Vangelis brought his CS-80 out to play. I listened to this soundtrack a lot preparing to write for The Last Man, particularly the organ piece that dissolves into a wash of electronic noise.
La Planète Sauvage (Bande Sonore Originale)
Surrealist French animated sci-fi about a future where human beings, ‘Oms’, are seen as domesticated pets on an alien planet. It’s a complete trip. Alain Goraguer was a famous French musician who had collaborated with Serge Gainsbourg. There are 25 tracks replaying versions of a couple of musical themes and it should be listened to as a single song cycle rather than a soundtrack with different ‘scenes’. It’s a must for anyone into avant grade, experimental and whacked out Pink Flyod-esque psychedelic jazz.
Alien (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
(20th Century Records, 1979)
Horror in space – it’s intense and unsettling. I love the beautiful music in the ‘Main Titles’ when the sleeping Nostromo blinks into life and the crew emerge from their sleeping bays. As the horror unfolds the music turns to avant garde crashing dissonance, scraping strings and percussion and it’s terrifying. Sigourney Weaver is one of the BEST sci-fi heroines. Aliens ‘82 is also one hell of a film, but the low budget, claustrophobic intensity of the original is unbeatable.
(Warner Bros, 1981)
I only recently discovered Outland. A ‘space western’ starring Sean Connery – sold. Outland is visually similar to Alien and used a lot of the same model makers and costume designers. There’s some fantastically gruesome consequences of having a faulty space suit in zero gravity, rivalling Scanners for exploding body parts. Goldsmith had scored direct Hyman’s previous sci-fi conspiracy movie, Capricorn One, and brings his brilliant orchestral dissonance to this underrated sci-fi gem.
John Carpenter & Alan Howarth
Escape From New York (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
(Varèse Sarabande, 1981)
John Carpenter directs and scores this sci-fi cult classic. Modular synths and electronic disco make for a gloriously epic ’80s score. The super cool Death Waltz label released it remastered on vinyl and it looks beautiful. Carpenter’s electronic soundtracks have been a major influence on many electronic composers – including myself. It’s a great soundtrack for touring ‘night rides’ – ’69th Street Bridge’ is a particular DJ favourite.
This is obviously the big daddy of ’80s sci-fi. For such a bleak vision of the future (wonderfully described as Hong Kong on a bad day) the droning synths and CS-80 melodies are so achingly beautiful. It’s the soundtrack that first made me notice the power of great film music and the first soundtrack I listened to endlessly on repeat. Bladerunner is the perfect marriage of music and film at it’s best. I recently DJ’d at the Spiritland night at the Merchant Tavern. I put my feet up with an amaretto sour and played the entire soundtrack. So many people came up to ask what it was. Heaven.
Various (incl. Brad Fiedel)
The Terminator Original Soundtrack
I love this synth heavy soundtrack. I’ve always wanted ‘The Terminator Theme’ to be my gig intro music. Puff out the chest and feel massively pumped up. It’s big, mean and mechanical. Like Alien, the sequel is a bigger budgeted blockbuster which ups the body count but for me the scares are bigger with bad Arnie relentlessly hunting down a terrified Sarah Connor to the industrial poundings of Fiedel’s drums. I gotta add that 87’s Predator is also a great Arnie sci-fi film.
Akira (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
Akira was my first introduction into animated sci-fi – which then opened the gateway into discovering Moebius, Heavy Metal. Jodorowsky and most recently the brilliant Ghost In The Shell soundtrack. There’s a whole world to discover. Geino Yamashirogumi used the cutting edge technologies of the time to replicate gamelan and Balinese percussion but the soundtrack is a mix of traditional music styles and synths. They never wrote another film score which is hard to believe as this stands as one of the greatest anime films of all time.